DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In his new family drama "The Fabelmans," Steven Spielberg tells a semi-autobiographical story about how he fell in love with movies when he was young. The film was co-written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner and features Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as characters based on Spielberg's parents. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review of "The Fabelmans," which begins its theatrical run on Friday.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Steven Spielberg has never been shy about weaving elements of his family history into his movies. He's spoken in interviews about how his dad's World War II stories shaped "1941" and "Saving Private Ryan" and how "E.T." and "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" grew out of the pain of his parents' divorce. Now at 75, Spielberg places that divorce front and center in "The Fabelmans" along with many other details from his childhood and teenage years. It's his fourth collaboration with the playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner. And for the first time, the two share a writing credit. The movie is funny, melancholy and altogether marvelous. And if its portrait of a young filmmaking prodigy verges on self-congratulatory, that's easily forgiven considering who that prodigy grew up to be.
In the movie, his name is Sammy Fabelman, and we first meet him as a young kid in 1950s New Jersey. From the moment his parents take him to see Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show On Earth," he's hooked. And he knows he's found his life's calling. Shooting in gorgeously immersive long takes with his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg lovingly recreates his early moviemaking memories. We see Sammy shooting monster movies with his younger sisters, using ketchup as fake blood. Later, as a teenager in the early '60s, Sammy, played by the appealing Gabriel LaBelle, will direct a few terrific short films, including a Western and a war picture.
Moviemaking provides him with some stability amid the upheaval of his family life. His kindhearted father, Burt, played with aching restraint by Paul Dano, is an electrical engineer whose work in the burgeoning computer industry keeps him and the family on the move, relocating over the years from New Jersey to Phoenix, Ariz., to Northern California. All this change takes a heavy toll on Sammy's free-spirited mother, Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams in an emotionally vibrant and ultimately devastating performance. Williams shows us Mitzi's radiance and her restlessness and also her deep regret at having sacrificed a career as a concert pianist in order to raise her family.
Mitzi urges Sammy to follow his filmmaking dreams. A close family friend, Bennie, played by Seth Rogan, proves just as encouraging. But Sammy's father wishes he would do something more practical, like computing or engineering. This tension is brilliantly articulated by Sammy's great-uncle, Boris, who drops by one day for an unexpected visit. Played by a wonderful Judd Hirsch, Boris, a former circus performer and silent film actor, tells Sammy about the cost of pursuing a life in the arts.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")
JUDD HIRSCH: (As Uncle Boris) You'll make movies. You'll do your art. But you'll remember how it hurt. Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth. But - but also it will tear your heart out.
CHANG: Sammy loves making movies, in part because it grants him the illusion of control. As he shoots with an eight millimeter camera and cuts scenes together by hand, he discovers that he can bend reality to his will and even work through his fears and insecurities. That feels like a remarkably honest confession coming from Spielberg, who's often been taken to task by critics for being overly manipulative, for indulging in easy sentimentality and avoiding tougher questions.
But what makes "The Fablemans" so affecting is that it knows there's more to movies than make believe. In time, Sammy learns that a camera can see things that the human eye misses, that it can expose painful secrets. One summer, he films a family camping trip, and what happens next has serious repercussions for his parents and siblings. Spielberg unpacks these revelations in a nearly wordless sequence that ranks among the most lyrical filmmaking of his career. It's wrenching to see his young alter ego reckon with the truth of who his parents are, learn to forgive them and embrace the good that they've both instilled in him.
As sad as its portrait of family can be, "The Fablemans" is also Spielberg's funniest movie in some time. It has a winningly rambunctious spirit. Sure, there are some overly broad comic moments at Sammy's high school, where he experiences first love and butts heads with antisemitic jocks. But even these scenes prove irresistible. It's just as satisfying here as it is in other Spielberg movies, like "Duel" and "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," to see bullies get their comeuppance. It's also satisfying to see young Sammy come face to face with one of his personal cinematic heroes in a moment that's simply too good to spoil.
Did it all really happen this way? It's doubtful. Like all great storytellers, Spielberg knows the value of artifice and embellishment. But again and again in "The Fablemans," he uses his dazzling command of the medium to arrive at startling new depths of emotional truth.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed Steven Spielberg's new film, "The Fablemans." On tomorrow's show, we remember Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock 'n' roll great who died last week in Memphis. We'll hear our interviews with his sister, pianist and singer Linda Gail Lewis, and with Myra Lewis Williams, who married Jerry Lee when she was just 13. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY ARMS")
JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) Now, blue ain't the word for the way that I feel, that old storm brewing in this heart of mine. Someday your crazy arms will hold somebody new. But now I'm gettin' lonely all the time. Crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new while my yearnin' heart keeps sayin' you're not mine, not mine, not mine, not mine. My troubled mind knows soon to another you'll be wed. But now I'm gettin' lonely all the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.